ST. LOUIS – For nearly a year, two Missouri boys have been preparing to walk into a courtroom and face the man accused of kidnapping and abusing them. Now, an apparent surprise deal will spare them the ordeal.
Michael Devlin, the former pizzeria manager accused of kidnapping Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby, will plead guilty next week to kidnapping and sexual abuse charges, a prosecutor and a relative of one of the boys said Friday. Devlin's surprise decision brings a sudden end to a massive criminal case that has drawn international attention.
"This is a great day," said Loyd Bailie, Ben's uncle. "Just knowing that Ben is not going to have to relive all this through the court system — this is cloud nine."
Devlin was arrested in January after police found Shawn and Ben in Devlin's apartment in the St. Louis County town of Kirkwood. He faces more than 80 felony charges in three Missouri counties and federal court, and would face several life sentences if convicted.
Devlin initially pleaded not guilty to all the charges, raising the specter that Ben and Shawn might be forced to testify against him during multiple trials.
Bailie said the family had been briefed by prosecutors that Devlin will plead guilty in all four jurisdictions where he is charged. Attorneys on both sides of the case would not comment, but St. Louis County's prosecutor made a surprise announcement of a series of hearings to end the cases in all four jurisdictions. The hearings will be Monday, Tuesday and possibly Wednesday.
Shawn's parents Pam and Craig Akers, were "cautiously elated" at hearing the news Friday, according to a statement they released through family friend Sherri Martin.
"When this occurs, we will finally end this nightmarish chapter in our lives and begin a new, fresh chapter that we have waited to begin for five long years," the statement said.
Washington County prosecutor John Rupp said Devlin will plead guilty and be sentenced Tuesday on six charges, including kidnapping, attempted murder and forcible sodomy. He said he could not comment on the other jurisdictions.
The Washington County charges stem from the 2002 kidnapping of Shawn Hornbeck. The 11-year-old disappeared in the remote town of Richwoods while riding his bike and wasn't seen by his family for another four years. Rupp said Devlin abducted the boy at gunpoint, sexually assaulted him and attempted to kill him in 2002.
Shawn's case had faded into history by Jan. 8, 2007, when Ben Ownby disappeared near his home in rural Franklin County, just minutes after the Boy Scout stepped off his school bus.
A tip from a classmate describing a white pickup truck speeding from the scene led police to Devlin's cramped apartment in a working class neighborhood. Investigators were stunned when they found Ben inside the apartment with Shawn, who by then was a 15-year-old with shaggy hair and a lip ring.
Shawn had lived with Devlin for years, telling neighbors he was the man's son. He made friends, surfed the Internet and roamed Kirkwood, without revealing who he was.
Ethan Corlija, Devlin's attorney, declined to comment on next week's hearings but said, "I can tell you, disposition usually means, among lawyers, that things will be concluded in some manner."
The announcement from St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch did not specify the purpose for the disposition hearings, and McCulloch's office did not return several phone calls seeking comment. U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway also declined to comment. Franklin County prosecutor Robert Parks did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Devlin has been jailed in Franklin County since his arrest Jan 12. In August, he was briefly transferred to the St. Louis County jail to be arraigned on 71 charges there for abusing and detaining both boys in his apartment.
After their rescue, Shawn and Ben were returned to their parents.
Shawn has been home-schooled since his return to the Washington County community of Richwoods and has become a celebrity of sorts, appearing on Oprah and in People magazine. He turned 16 this summer.
Ben returned to school soon after he was freed and has remained out of the spotlight. Bailie said Ben has returned to life as he knew it: playing baseball, camping and studying.
It is The Associated Press' policy not to identify most victims of sexual abuse, but the boys' stories have been widely publicized, and their names are now well-known.